At 87 years of age, reduced to a frail mass of flesh wracked by dementia, broken bones and failing kidneys, my father more welcomed the dying of his light than raged against it as his last at-bat approached.
Yet, the extraordinary role the 2008 Boston Red Sox played in helping this old shortstop to leave the field with dignity and to enjoy a lucid farewell ranks right up there, for his son, with the Fisk home run and the Roberts stolen base-Mueller base knock.
To some of you, perhaps, this tribute may appear to be nothing more than a son’s flagrant act of infantilism and an absurd trivialization of a father’s death — dismissing concerns about The Great Questions, such as the meaning of life and death, to celebrate the game of baseball.
But I make no apology.
I find myself on the field of the ineffable, warmed only by the literal “poetic” omen I heard on Maine Public Broadcasting Network radio, while developing my thoughts for this essay, when Garrison Keillor used his “Writer’s Almanac” segment to read former Maine Poet Laureate Baron Wormser’s poem, entitled “The O’s.”
Wormser’s narrator, observing the impending death of his grandfather, notes the lifelong Baltimore Orioles fan won’t miss “the dogwoods or forsythia or magnolias,” nor “the newly mown grass.” He won’t miss “the crab soup his long time paramour, Bessie, still makes…” No, it’s baseball that this terminally-ill-with-cancer victim has on his mind. Wormser writes:
It’s the losing streak that he can’t abide because they’re
Bound to win one, sooner or later the announcer’s
Voice is going to take off into the ozone of announcer
Excitement with a whoosh and a wallop
And the curse will be over.
For my father and me, the game of baseball — I now see — was destined to become a cradle-to-grave matter.
The son of Jewish Russian immigrants who settled in the greater Boston area, Al Rice frequently found escape from difficult religious assimilation and oppressive economic woes, stemming from an upbringing during the Depression, on the sandlot ball fields of Dorchester.
And, on the rare occasion when he had the spare coins, a trip to Fenway Park.
In 1939 he saw Ted Williams, playing in his rookie season for the Red Sox. And, just like Williams, my dad served in World War II, returning to Boston in 1946 and enduring the heartbreaking World Series loss when a Boston slugging juggernaut was upended by the sprinting “damn Yankee”-to-be Enos Slaughter and the St. Louis Cardinals.
When I was born in 1947, my dad was eager to see what kind of a ballplayer he had.
A little too eager.
According to my mom, who told the story often before she died in 1998, he began rolling a baseball at me a little past infancy, when I could barely manage sitting up on my own.
On one occasion, the ball apparently struck a crack in the hardwood floor and careened into my lip, causing blood and blubbering. Nowhere near as concerned about my erroring ways as about my safety, my mom forbade any further ball-playing until I could stand on my own and repeatedly toss that baseball out of my crib.
Only briefly deterred, my dad set off on creating what became a lifetime interest in baseball for me.
He snuck me into Bangor’s Farm League at age 7, one year before proper age eligibility at the time.
He lured me into trying out for the Bangor West Little League at age 10, paying off in the most prized possession of my youth – a reddish-brown Johnny Temple-model glove, purchased before my eyes at Dakin’s Sporting Goods Store.
He bade me to get that aforementioned glove and his, for the annual ritual of a game of catch, each spring, as soon as the snows had receded enough in front of our Fifteenth Street home in Bangor.
He also escorted me into Fenway Park in the late ’50s to see the Red Sox but, more importantly, to see, in person, the now-immortal Williams do something he did as well as any mortal God ever made — hit a baseball.
And he surprised me my sophomore year at Northeastern University, by appearing at my Boston apartment with tickets to the final game of the 1967 season, the game the Red Sox won to cap a most improbable winning season and capture the American League pennant.
Even when communication between my dad and me reached its nadir, in the late 1960s, the bond of baseball was a constant neither of us could resist.
We fought bitterly, over everything from my anti-Vietnam War views, to my support for the Black Power and women’s movements, to the length of my hair. Frustrated that another conversation between us was going to end in complete acrimony, I suddenly had an inspiration, grinned mischievously and asked him, “Who’s the greatest hitter you ever saw?”
Still infuriated with me, he snapped: “You know the answer to that.”
“Say it, Dad,” I implored him.
“Ted Williams,” he smiled wanly and, seizing the extended olive branch, inquired of me, “Who’s the greatest hitter YOU ever saw?”
“Ted Williams…We’ll never disagree about that, so we’ll always have a way to end a conversation agreeing about something,” I said.
Two word-weary warriors smiled and hugged. It was a ploy, comic-tragically, we used many, many times over the years to bridge the contentious [debate] and stop arguing about things we’d never see eye-to-eye about or, perhaps even worse, knew nothing about.
…Inning by inning we sit listening
And Grandpa knows it’s stupid, he knows
He’s dying and he should be thinking about last things
But he doesn’t know anything about last things.
…I turn off
The radio and the nurse looks in on the mostly gone man
And his grandson sitting in the wan, fluorescent light
That could have come from Macbeth it’s so
Grievous and spectral and unhealthy. Death light.
We aren’t saying anything, but Grandpa’s still alive
And though the O’s have lost another there’s still
Tomorrow. Grandpa closes his eyes
And I say that I’ve got to head home and grade some themes.
He opens his watery hesitant eyes because he knows
He might not see me again; he might not hear another
“Here’s the first pitch.” “We’re not finished yet,” he rasps
And I smile a smile I can’t help because he’s right.
It’s Friday, Oct. 17, 2008, the day before my birthday, and three days before my dad’s 88th birthday.
I’ve boarded a plane in Manchester, N.H. en route to Scottsdale, Ariz.
I’m preparing myself for what I know will be the last time I will see my dad alive. I’m preparing to find him in both a physical and mental condition I have never, ever seen.
This was a man who delighted, in his mid-70s, in defeating racquetball opponents who were half his age and younger.
I’m preparing to find a man who may not remember who he is or where he is, or may not remember something we discussed moments before; it’s happened several times, on the phone and in person, in the last two years.
Simultaneous to this, and against all possible odds, the Boston Red Sox had extended their season, and any possible interest in baseball my dad and I might have on the weekend coming.
I smiled at the memory.
Satiated with Boston world championships in both 2004 and 2007, and faced with several three-hour college classes to teach the next day, I had snapped the late-night game off two days earlier when it reached the seventh inning and the Red Sox appeared to be losing by a clearly insurmountable 7-0 score.
With that near miraculous comeback the Red Sox would have at least one more playoff game Saturday, one final playoff game I could, hopefully, watch with my dad.
On both Saturday and Sunday, in a nursing home/rehabilitation center in Scottsdale, I spent hour after hour after hour, sitting beside my dad’s bed where he lay sleeping a good deal of the time.
My dad, I was told by several people, was surprisingly lucid during my two-day visit.
We had several conversations when I was able to update him on my personal and professional life, bemoan the end of my recreational running career and discuss current events, like the pending national election.
Frustrating and heartbreaking were other conversations, when my dad would awaken, unclear who he was and where he was and what was happening to him. I would answer the same questions, again and again, desperately trying to not let weary frustration, impatience and anger seep whatsoever into my voice.
These sessions, whether of the uplifting variety or the totally despairing variety, rarely lasted more than 15 or 20 minutes, and he’d fall asleep in whatever position he’d spoken to me last.
Watching the playoff game with him that night was an absolute joy. He was more alert than at any other time that day.
When I’d question an umpire’s call on a ball or strike, my dad actually laughed at my obvious bias and said, “No, Ed, the umpire got it right…” And, sure enough, the television replay would prove it so.
He’d point out subtleties of the game, like a second baseman’s extraordinary quick release on a double-play pivot or an outfielder’s lax approach in properly relaying the ball into the infield.
He demonstrated not only a sharp mind for someone frequently troubled with dementia but a mental dexterity only the baseball aficionado possesses.
After five innings, however, fatigue overtook him, and he fell asleep for the night. The Sox, of course, won and now on Sunday we had yet another game to eagerly await.
Again, Sunday’s game seemed to momentarily free him from any concerns about dementia.
For several innings, he fought fatigue and closely watched the Sox take a one-run lead. He knew when I left that evening, I would be leaving for the airport; I had an overnight flight, departing at 11 p.m. back to New England, so I would be present to teach my literature class at the community college on Monday afternoon.
Like my dad, after so tumultuous a fight to stay in the game, the Red Sox finally lost steam that evening.
But I couldn’t have been more proud of them for extending the season twice, giving my dad and me an extra special farewell. Though he was trying desperately, my dad could no longer keep his eyes open to watch the final innings of the season.
Heavy dosages of drugs were being used to help combat the toxins from his failing kidneys, toxins that were spreading throughout his body, toxins that ultimately finished their work on Nov. 7, 2008. We said our goodbyes; I kissed him on the forehead and told him, “It’s all right, Dad. Get some rest. I love you.”
Closing his eyes, on the precipice of giving in to weariness and drugs and sleep, my dad made one final Ruthian gesture as he clasped my hand, firmly, in a farewell handshake, hammering a home run in his last at bat just as memorably as his hero Ted Williams had.
Ed Rice of Orono is author of a book on Penobscot baseball legend Louis Sockalexis and a new book on his cousin, Olympic marathon runner Andrew Sockalexis. He has a Web site at www.sockalexis.info.